“A dialogue of consent” as Bakhtin’s neo-rhetorical project

Oct 24th, 2013 | By | Category: Dialog, Literary Studies, Philosophy

Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them. (Mt 18, 19-20)

In the last decades of the twentieth century Bakhtin became fashionable both in Russia and abroad. However, both this fashion and its rejection prevent us from fully appreciating Bakhtin’s contribution to the intellectual situation of our time. And yet it is precisely the era of globalisation, in which an inability to come to an agreement could spark the danger of the obliteration of the human race, which throws a new light on Bakhtin’s dialogism – as a thoroughly contemporary intention of humanitarian thinking.

A logical reaction to the post-modern crisis is the shift from the now disreputable rhetoric of “verbal compulsion” to a rhetoric of the negotiation process; the latter being defined as a non-imperative resultative mode of communication aiming to constructively change a certain situation, position, circumstance, social behaviour, social institutions, social politics, etc. However, non-successful negotiations are no less resultative than successful negotiations, as the absence of the changes which are to be expected is in itself a result, while many other communicative situations (protocol exchanges, ritual adherence to human relationships, free exchanges of opinion, etc.) are not resultative.

In today’s world there are many communicative situations with no hierarchical relationships between their participants; strategies of begging and demanding are ineffective in such situations, and yet other possibilities of achieving the desired result are unknown to many. Non-hierarchical and non-authoritative modes of resulting communication include compromise (the strategy of tolerance) and the dialogue of consent [диалог согласия] (the convergent strategy).

In the case of a compromise, both sides abandon some of their claims, for example when vendor and customer barter about the price of an object. However, in more complex communicative situations with a non-alternative, dialogical diversity of voices this strategy doesn’t work – yet this description applies to most situations of social interaction. To deal with these situations we must find a new, third solution, a point of convergence, resulting not from mutual concessions, but from the complementarity of non-identical interests. This is the starting point of the communicative project of “dialogical consent”, of which Bakhtin is most certainly one of the most prolific advocates.

It is firstly notable that Bakhtin consistently places the concept of dialogue [общение] between participants of a communicative event in opposition to the simplified view of communication as a sender transmitting [сообщение] a certain message to a recipient. For Bakhtin, the communicative function of language manifests itself in the utterance, which is a directed thematic-semantic entity, and not in the sentence, which is treated by linguists as a grammatically organised unit of communication. In contrast to the information contained in a sentence, the thematic-semantic moment of an utterance does not consist of the meanings of the language units constituting it. Rather, it consists in “using the utterance for purposes of (cognitive, artistic, active) capturing of new moments of reality” (5, 281).1 As both the speaker and the hearer do not remain in their own worlds, but meet in a “third world, the world of communication” (5, 210), communication is not just a dialogue [общение], but a partaking [приобщение] in the “objective subjectivity” (5, 244), i.e. in the intersubjective whole of cultural values.

In his works Bakhtin transforms Benjamin Whorf’s term “metalinguistics” to mark the problematic area of “dialogical relations”. This “exceeds linguistics” because its questions have a philosophical dimension. In this way Bakhtin dissociates himself not only from Saussure, but also from Stalin’s “Marxism and Problems of Linguistics”, whose conception of language Bakhtin characterises as that of a normative system, whereas the New Rhetoric deals with multilingual (taken in a semiotic sense, rather than denoting language skills) consciousness, for which language takes on different qualities than it would for a “deaf monolingual [i.e. normative – V.T.] consciousness” (5, 157).

Initial approaches to metalinguistic matters were made already by members of the “Bakhtin circle” in the 1920s, which postulated a clearly Aristotle- based triad of speaker, hearer and object being spoken of, thus making obvious Bakhtin’s close ties to the rhetorical tradition.

Bakhtin did not use the term “communicative strategy”, but he does imply it, for example when he says that “when we are constructing some utterance the whole of it is always present in our mind […] We do not line words up individually, we do not step from one word to the next, but rather we virtually fill the whole with appropriate words” (5, 190). This whole is the “typical form of utterance”, corresponding to “typical situations of verbal communication” (5, 191). The range of such strategies has been outlined in Bakhtin’s works, which can therefore be considered as a genuine version of New Rhetoric along with the discourse conceptions of Foucault, Pêcheux, Van Dijk and others.

New Rhetoric, which considers language to be rhetorical by nature, associates the boundaries of the human world with the boundaries of language. Bakhtin expresses his notion of language, which is actually similar, rather differently – from the point of view of philosophical dialogism. A “social man”, who is necessarily also a “communicating man”, has to deal not with language as a regulating norm, but with a variety of discursive practices, which together form the dynamic verbal culture of a given society.

It is against the common, agonal understanding of dialogue in modern culture that Bakhtin determines “consent” [согласие] to be “the most important dialogical category” (5, 364), which he views rather hierarchically.

A “dialogical null-relation” is given by a dialogue of the deaf, where there is no semantic contact between utterances (5, 336). The lowest level of dialogical relations belongs to dissent [несогласие]: “dispute, polemic, parody” being “on the surface the most evident, but rough forms of dialogue” (5, 332). The next level is represented by “trust in the other’s word, reverent acceptance”, “apprenticeship” (5, 332). A level above these extremes of acceptance and rejection of other’s words is “a dissent, diversity of opinions [разногласие]; it tends, in fact, to the consent [согласие], in which the difference and unmergeability of voices is always preserved” (5, 364).

Finally, on the highest dialogical level we find the “richness and variety of types and shades of content”, among which Bakhtin names the “overlapping of meanings”, “intensification through fusion (yet not equation), combination of many voices (corridor of voices), complementary understanding” (5, 332). At the same time, the polyphonic content never merges “various voices and truths into one impersonal truth, as is the case in a monological novel” (6, 108).

Thus, the “dialogical relation of content” (5, 336) constitutes for Bakhtin “the last goal of any dialogicality”. In the context of Bakhtin’s concepts this could be motivated in three ways.

Firstly, “a minimum of consent” is conceived to be a “necessary condition for dialogue” and thus “represents a regulating idea” of any communication (5, 364). Secondly, there is the prospect of “free consent [согласие] on the highest level (the ‘golden age’, the ‘kingdom of God’, and so on)” (5, 353), as in the prospect of “eternity” (2, 156), while controversy is always situational and time-bound. Thirdly, “individuality, freedom and equality are more difficult to implement by way of consent than by way of controversy in a dispute”.  That’s why “the devil fears consent […] as loss of his personality” (6, 302).

To understand consent as the highest form of dialogical relations we should consider Bakhtin’s notion of dialogism, which is “broader than dialogue” (5, 361), i.e. it includes the monologue as well: firstly, because “even between deeply monologic verbal artefacts there are always dialogic relations” (5, 336). And secondly, because dialogic relations not only exist between utterances, but “penetrate every utterance from within” (5, 321). On the other hand, monologism often manifests itself in compositional forms of dialogical speech.

The crucial point is that, unlike the linguistic categories of monologue and dialogue, Bakhtin’s terms “monologism” and “dialogism” belong to metalinguistics (New Rhetoric), because “dialogical relations […] are much broader than dialogical speech” (5, 336). By defining monologism as “denying the other the last word” (5, 362) and by dealing not with utterances, but with “voices as units of dialogue”, Bakhtin makes it clear that we are dealing here with interpersonal relations between bearers of consciousness manifesting itself in the communicative behaviour of its bearers.

Thus, “dialogism” appears to be a characteristic of truly human relationships, implying that human unity is “the consent of two or several unmergeable” beings or positions (5, 346). It is therefore impossible to understand a person by making him an object of unconcerned, objective analysis. Only human interaction can reveal “the man in man” to others as well as to oneself. “Monologism” in contrast ignores the humanness of the other and deprives the object or the addressee of an utterance of the status of the inner “man in man”. Hence, it appears as a perversion of a truly human relationship, as it reduces communication to playing merely an official, functional role.

All this distinguishes “polyphonic consent” (6, 302) as one of the basic concepts in Bakhtin’s thinking. We shall now try to determine the importance of this concept in today’s academic context.

Bakhtin’s dialogic consent principally represents a certain discursive formation, in which the object, the speaker and the addressee of an utterance are positioned.

In particular, positioning the object means attributing it to a certain rhetorical worldview. It is strategically important for the dialogue of consent that the communication partners don’t turn to the “role of”, “imperative” or “occasional” (notions developed by Chaim Perelman), but the probabilistic worldview, which represents “the world as an event (and not as a ready-made, closed reality)” (EST, 364).

The positioning of the subject implies the choice of a rhetorical form of authorship; for the dialogue this should consist of neither the reduction of oneself to a normative role, nor a deviant self-affirmation, but of the self-objectification of one’s own subjectivity. “By objectifying (i.e. externalising) myself I have the opportunity of a truly dialogical relation to myself” (5, 332).

Finally, the positioning of the recipient in the dialogue of consent suggests solidary complementarity of the receptive consciousness, which grasps meaning, to the creative consciousness, which generates the text. The communicative intention of solidarity results from the strategic moment of mutual responsibility of communicating consciousnesses and requires “complementing understanding” (5, 332).

The convergent discursive formation of dialogic consent is realised by way of interactive communicational behaviour (in particular, through the metabolic potentials of the allusive, double-voiced, quasi-direct speech), which is aimed at the projective modality of the “anticipated answering word” (VLE, 93). N. Avtonomova characterises Bakhtin’s metaboles as “forms of thinking”, which “stimulate […] responsive mental or emotional states” and carry a charge of meaning, which “interacts in certain ways with expectations directed at them”.2

The dominant representative modality of this communicative strategy is that of understanding. Here Bakhtin distinguishes between the “recognition of iterating elements […] of language”, necessary for the first stadium of understanding, “and the comprehending understanding [осмысливающее понимание] of a unique utterance” (EST, 338).

The first mode of understanding is often treated “as evoking in the hearer the same idea as in the speaker” (5, 255). For Bakhtin, however, “individual ideas are not the common link of understanding”, as they are “random, personal and fanciful” (ibid.). These iconic means of interaction, as I would add, are sufficient only when communicating in the post-rhetorical modality of opinion, i.e. within discursive formation of dialogical dissent.

Regarding only the second mode as true understanding, Bakhtin defines it as “beholding a vital meaning of experience and expression” (5, 9). Such “understanding does not duplicate what is to be understood” (5, 216). Other than knowledge, it is not reproductive, but projective, as it “replenishes the text […] and is creative by its nature” (5, 216).

However, the co-generating creativity of understanding should not be overestimated, as it is in post-structuralism when “the birth of the reader has to be paid for by the death of the author”.3

According to Bakhtin, meaning as the subject matter of understanding has a “responsive character”; it “always answers questions. Something that does not answer any questions appears meaningless to us”. At the same time, meaning is “potentially limitless, but it can be realised only by coming into contact with another (someone else’s) meaning” (EST, 350). Understanding is therefore an encounter of two versions of one meaning, i.e. a realisation of a virtual common meaning, or “true convergence (when two directions of thought touch some side of the same truth)” (5, 317). The complementarity of these versions, which are equally active in the act of understanding, brings about “partaking [приобщение], on higher levels – partaking in the highest values” (EST, 369), in the universal meaning of Being. However, when viewed as understanding, this partaking in absolute meaning is always conditional; it is concrete on a personal and historical level.

The historical and individual nature of understanding displays itself as a “never-ending renewal of meanings in ever new contexts” (EST, 372) and consists of the fact that “every understanding means relating a text to other texts” (EST, 364), i.e. it represents an active and responsible displacement of the subject-matter of understanding into various contexts. Specific modes of understanding in the field of literature are: a) aesthetic perception, b) scientific explanation and c) journalistic interpretation (or literary criticism) of a work of literature. The first mode denotes an aesthetically driven “tonality of our consciousness, serving as an emotional and spiritual context of understanding” (EST, 366). The second implies “movement backwards – to past contexts” from “a starting point – a given text” (EST, 364) (as the subject-matter of literary analysis). The third mode means “movement forwards – the anticipation (and the beginning) of a future context” (ibid.).

Bakhtin draws our attention to “the different degrees and limits of contexts needed for understanding” (5, 255), including the context of “the great time – the infinite dialogue, which cannot be brought to an end and in which no meaning dies” (EST, 372). Understanding as the detection and renewal of intersubjective meaning can be directed not only towards verbal utterances, but also towards non-verbal phenomena. In such cases understanding acts as a “semantic transformation of Being” (EST, 367).

For many centuries prior to the modern times, a choral unanimity and authoritatively monologic consent between people was maintained within an immutable and compulsory worldview by means of ideology and culture. In contrast, nowadays provocative disagreement, which splits reality into many alternative worlds, dominates social and interpersonal relationships. The conceptual basis and analytic facilities of New Rhetoric, understood as metalinguistics, open up the prospect of the realisation of Bakhtin’s project of a mutual and responsible but not imperative transformation of Being. The communicational project of dialogic consent as the highest form of interpersonal relations, as “the highest level of sociality (not the external or objective, but the inner one)” (5, 344) appears to gain a particularly acute urgency in the increasing globalisation of today’s world.

However, we do not come across an adequate understanding of Bakhtin’s discourse often enough. Some interpreters even spot hidden “dangers of dialogue” in his teachings.4 What was that again about Bakhtin’s “devil” who fears consent?

Valeri Tyupa, Russian State University for the Humanities


Translated from Russian by Jahangir Bashirov and Annie Rutherford


  1. The references after citations refer to the following Bakhtin editions:

    2 : Bachtin, M.M.: Sobranie sočinenij v semi tomach [Works in 7 volumes], Vol. 2, Moscow 2000. 5 : Bachtin, M.M.: Sobranie sočinenij v semi tomach [Works in 7 volumes], Bd. 5, Moscow 1997. 6 : Bachtin, M.M.: Sobranie sočinenij v semi tomach [Works in 7 volumes], Bd. 6, Moscow 2002. EST : Bachtin, M.M.: Ėstetika slovesnogo tvorčestva [Aesthetics of Verbal Creation], Moskau 1979. VLE : Bachtin, M.M.: Voprosy literatury i ėstetiki [Questions of Literature and Aesthetics], Moskau 1975. []

  2. Avtonomova, N.: Otkrytaja struktura [Open Structure]. Jakobson – Bachtin – Lotman – Gasparov, Мoscow 2009, p. 150. []
  3. Roland Barthes: Izbrannye raboty. Semiotika. Poėtika [Selected Works. Semiotics. Poetics.], Moscow 1989, p. 391. []
  4. Cf. for example Alan Fogel: Coerced Speech and the Œdipus Dialogue Complex, in: Rethinking Bakhtin. Extensions and Challenges, Evanston 1989, p. 173-196. []
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